Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Seven: Loosing Gender

Speaker's Corner: All this week, four accomplished travelers -- Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Liz Sinclair, Terry Ward and Catherine Watson -- talk about the rewards and perils of hitting the road alone as a woman.

10.10.07 | 2:01 PM ET

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From: Liz Sinclair
To: Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Terry Ward and Catherine Watson
Subject: Loosing Gender

As Terry said, we all love to travel because it’s a learning experience for us. It’s the way we make sense of our world and explore it and ourselves. Because we’re writers, we take our readers along with us. Some of the most satisfying feedback I’ve had about my articles is being told that I’ve changed someone’s point of view or given them an “aha” moment. Because it’s usually been an “aha” moment for me, too.

I also can no longer “just travel.” I’m writing constantly wherever I go, trying to see things through a reader’s eyes, looking for my hooks, my characters, listening for my dialogue. This is one reason why I started living in foreign countries. I’m dissatisfied with knowing only the surface. I want to get beneath the skin of the culture. I have always been interested in “issue-based” travel stories, but they’re hard to research until you speak the language and know the culture better. It seems like at least two of you have spent years living outside the U.S.

The down side of seeing so much of the world is seeing so much of its suffering and poverty. I wanted to do something to make a difference, to give back, which is why I’m grant writing in Bali for a year. Catherine seems to feel the same way.

But I also love my security and need a familiar base to return to. Too many new places, or a nomadic lifestyle, make me jittery. I crave routine and familiarity, even while I’m constantly pushing the limit of my own fears by exposing myself to new cultures.

When I left America 12 years ago, I planned to return in two. I got pulled and stretched so much by living and traveling in other countries that I find it impossible to consider returning now. Most Americans have such a myopic view of the rest of the world, and have no idea how the country is seen from the outside, that I find it overwhelmingly claustrophobic to be there for long. And yet, a lot of the qualities that I like in myself are American so I’m grateful I grew up there.

I also believe that America is one of the most violent cultures I have ever seen. I love that in Melbourne, apart from a few small areas, I can walk around late at night, or early in the morning, alone, and feel perfectly safe.

The irony is that I’m settling permanently in a place (Australia) that is still, and always will be, inherently strange to me as I didn’t grow up there. Perfect material for a lifetime of travel writing. Maybe that’s my settler/nomad compromise. The writer Diana Darling, who has lived in Bali for over 30 years, and is married to a traditional Balinese healer, says that she understands this culture less now than when she moved here.

I agree with Stephanie that women are seen as “softer” writers than men. I can get away with asking a lot of questions in Bali about sensitive issues like the hidden AIDS epidemic, or how government officials want to legalize prostitution and make Bali another sex-tourism destination like Bangkok. But I also think that the gender of travel writing is changing. Kira Salak, the adventure traveler, to me, writes stories with a very masculine style, aloof from her subjects and full of facts and history. While the “new male” travel writers like Tom Bissell or Frank Bures write deeply personal and moving stories that touch my heart, with what I would describe as a “feminine style.” And then there’s the great Jan Morris who always writes with the sensitivity of both sexes. Maybe the great thing about travel writing is that while you’re leaving your own country and cultural identity behind, you can also loose your gender.

World Hum contributing editor Terry Ward writes for The Washington Post, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and AOL. A story she wrote about a women-run guesthouse in Rajasthan, India was selected as notable travel writing for the 2006 edition of the "Best American Travel Writing" series. She is based in Florida.

Catherine Watson is the former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the author of two collections of travel essays, the new Home on the Road -- Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth, and Roads Less Traveled -- Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth. She recently wrote the World Hum story Where the Roads Diverged.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest has mingled with the Russian Mafiya, polished Chinese propaganda and belly danced with Cuban rumba queens. She is the author of Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, as well as Not Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, and the guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go

Australia-based Liz Sinclair is living in Bali, learning Indonesian, volunteering as a grant writer for a maternal and child health center for the poor and writing about Australia and Asia, with an emphasis on Indonesia and interfaith issues. She wrote Why I am Still Going to Bali for World Hum, and has written for The Melbourne Age, The Big Issue, Australia, The Brunei Times, The Evening Standard and Islands magazine.

3 Comments for Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Seven: Loosing Gender

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 8:36 AM ET

Dear Liz, Kira Salak blows me away. Right from the start and she was very young. I saw what I wanted 40 years ago. I read Jan Morris, T.E.Lawrence, Captain, Sir Richard Burton. I began with stuff English schoolboys read; Le Morte De Arthur, Caesar’s Commentaries, Greek Tragedy. Joyce, Hemingway. Literature major to biology to journalism and creative writing. I had to win every photo contest in Southern New Mexico in one year, be the first Person to do it and the only woman.
It was a great start. My first offer of Editor on a small newspaper came with $200. per week with an expected 65 hours. I went to work in a deli. If there is encouragement to be found it was what I made for myself. When I traveled I would live in the place I loved most. Beauty is my muse; landscapes, architecture, weather. B&W
photos   to color to digital printing. I
love my old cameras best. What I wrote and what I photograph often have no gender attached. Objectivity. It can spoil the beauty at times.MargoWolf

toronto printing 03.27.08 | 4:36 PM ET

nice post! thanks for sharing!

MargoWolf 03.27.08 | 10:58 PM ET

Toronto Printing,
  Thanks for saying so. I writeat MySpace. URL as usual with margowolf. Have
a read. Much activity. MW

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